After more than four years of frustrating delays, Blue Origin is finally making significant progress toward completing development of its powerful BE-4 rocket engine. At present, engineers and technicians with the company are assembling the first two flight engines at Blue Origin’s main factory in Kent, Washington.
The company aspires to deliver these two flight engines to United Launch Alliance before the end of this year, although that increasingly appears to be a “stretch” goal. Delivery may slip into early 2022. And in order to make this deadline, Blue Origin plans to take the somewhat risky step of shipping the engines to its customer before completing full qualification testing.
This delivery has been a long time coming. United Launch Alliance, or ULA, first agreed to buy the engines from Blue Origin back in 2014. It was a bold bet by ULA, a blueblood in space launch, on a new entrant to the market. But with the BE-4 engine, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos was promising a relatively low-cost, high performing engine with a power output comparable to a Space Shuttle main engine. At the time of this initial agreement, Blue Origin said the BE-4 would be “ready for flight” by 2017.
The BE-4’s delayed development has, increasingly, been the subject of keen interest. This is partly because ULA has been working on its new Vulcan rocket for a number of years, and that rocket is important to the future of the company. The military is also eager for this delivery, as ULA is a primary provider of launch services to the Department of Defense alongside SpaceX. They hope Vulcan provides lower cost launch services with engines manufactured in the United States. Finally, many in the space community are genuinely curious about the cause of the delay.
Despite this widespread interest, however, Blue Origin has said almost nothing publicly about the engine development. Therefore, this story attempts to provide some context for why the BE-4 engines are late. It is based on anonymous sources at the company’s headquarters as well as industry officials, some of whom would likely be fired if they were named.
In response to questions for this article, a spokeswoman for Blue Origin, Linda Mills, offered only a single-sentence reply. “We’re on track to deliver the engines this year,” she said.
According to these sources, the flight engines to be delivered to ULA, no. 1 and no. 2, are not yet fully assembled. But most of the components are built. The good news is that Blue Origin believes it has retired all of the significant technical risks. Engineers have already tested the BE-4 engine in a configuration close to that of the flight engines, and it has performed well during hot firings that approximate the duty cycle of a Vulcan first stage launch.
Blue Origin’s current plan involves testing two more development engines at its facility near Van Horn, Texas, this fall. These are close to, but not the, final version of the BE-4 engine.
After these tests, a fully assembled flight engine no. 1 will be shipped to Texas to undergo a fairly brief round of tests, known as acceptance testing. If this engine passes, as expected, it will be shipped to ULA. Then a virtually identical BE-4 engine will be sent from Kent to Texas. This “qual” engine will undergo a much more rigorous series of tests, known as qualification testing. The idea is to push the engine through its paces to find any flaws. Then a similar process will follow with flight engine no. 2, followed by a second “qual” engine.
The risk is that ULA will receive the flight engines before the full qualification testing is complete. This qualification work on Blue Origin’s test stands will be occurring even as ULA integrates the engines with its first Vulcan rocket for testing and ultimately a launch during the second half of 2022. So if Blue Origin finds a last-minute issue with the BE-4 engine, ULA may have to unwind its work on final Vulcan development.
“This is a success oriented approach, but it could definitely backfire,” one source told Ars.